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The Bible is often held up as a source of family values, but it is also full of families who falter and do so generation after generation. Few families have visited as much evil on each other as Abraham's descendants in Genesis. Using these stories, Claypool explores how God turns the "lead" of evil–like Jacob's ...
The Bible is often held up as a source of family values, but it is also full of families who falter and do so generation after generation. Few families have visited as much evil on each other as Abraham's descendants in Genesis. Using these stories, Claypool explores how God turns the "lead" of evil–like Jacob's theft of Esau's birthright, and Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt–into the "gold" of abundant blessing, as alchemists were said to do in the past. God is always more interested in our future, according to Claypool, than in our pasts.
In this book, as in his other books, Claypool explores the biblical texts carefully, and with a pastoral eye for the characters from Genesis and his contemporary readers. This bookoffers challenge and comfort to people who feel that their sins may be beyond God's concern and their lives beyond redemption.
God Lives at the End of Our Ropes
The Early Life of Jacob: Genesis 25–28
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It has long been a conviction of mine that the document we call the Holy Bible is deeply and profoundly true, with the added proviso that contained within its covers are many distinct forms of truth. The Good Book, as it is often described, is a many-splendored thing, a variety of forms of truth as to how God has revealed God's self, including historical facts, haunting and lovely poetry, pithy proverbs, lengthy genealogies, parabolic stories, and wildly imaginative apocalyptic scenarios, to name only a few. All of these varied forms qualify for the adjective true, and one of the most powerful of these forms is biographical narrative. What I propose to do is take some of the stories in the last half of the book of Genesis that revolve around a man named Jacob and his sons, and use them to illustrate the image of God as the Ingenious Alchemist. As I have already stated in the Introduction, I think one of the most telling insights into the nature of the Holy One in all of Scripture is that of One who possesses the amazing ability to take the most destructive things of which we free creatures are capable and transmute them into occasions of positive growth and blessing. What the ancient alchemists tried to do in turning the substance of lead into gold is a vivid image of this most incredible divine characteristic.
The author Frederick Buechner had little formal religious exposure or training until he became a well-educated young adult. In his late twenties, when he first began to encounter seriously the words of Holy Scripture, he reports that his greatest surprise was how, again and again, "the seemingly worst things were never the last things." He discovered that the God of Holy Scripture always seemed to have something up God's amazing sleeve, and I offer this image as a seminal insight into the very heart of that Mystery who stands behind all reality. In trying to understand why certain things happen, like the tragedies of 9/11/01, or where God was in the midst of such anguished events, I believe that this particular image can shed real light and become a means of deepening a sense of faith rather than destroying it. The early life of the patriarch Jacob is illustrative of this particular insight.
Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, who was the legendary "father of faith" and the true fountainhead of the Hebrew nation. Abraham was the one to whom God had appeared and promised to bless the whole human family through his descendants. Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, were Abraham's grandsons through his son, Isaac. While Isaac's wife, Rebecca, had been carrying these two, she experienced great internal struggle and was informed by an oracle that the twins and their descendants would engage in awesome conflict and the younger son would come to have preeminence over the older brother. At the moment of delivery, Esau emerged first from Rebecca's womb, which meant that he was technically regarded as the firstborn and eldest son and, in that era, this was an issue of huge importance. The technical term for this tradition is "primogeniture," in which all manner of privilege was accorded to the oldest male child. The eldest son inherited a lion's share of the father's property and was given the responsibility of being the leader of the family in every way. However, as these two individuals grew and matured, it became increasingly obvious that they were radically different in both native gifts and temperaments.
Esau was an outdoorsman through and through, a hunter and a fisherman who was totally engrossed in the physical dimensions of life and had little interest in anything intellectual or spiritual. Jacob, on the other hand, was the polar opposite. He cherished matters of the mind and heart and was particularly sensitive to the fact that his grandfather Abraham had been entrusted with a religious vocation that had to be handed on intentionally from one generation to another. One of the differences between natural religion and a historical faith is located at this very point. It has often been observed that, given the shape of the biblical faith, "God has no grandchildren." The truth is that both the Hebrew and Christian religions are always within one generation of extinction. If believers in either one of these groups fail to pass on the stories of what God has done and is doing in history, these particular religious traditions will fade from the earth. There has to be an ongoing process of witnessing and, as Isaac's two sons grew into manhood, it became obvious both to Rebecca and Jacob that Esau would never go to the trouble of passing on the truths about "the God of Abraham and Isaac." Here is where the old tradition of primogeniture would have been lethal to the survival of the Abrahamic faith, so Rebecca and Jacob dared to do something considered most radical in the era in which they lived. Out of their desire to save something they treasured, they challenged the accepted notion of the primacy of the firstborn by committing two highly manipulative and deceptive acts.
There were two symbols of primogeniture in that time: a birthright and a patriarchal blessing passed on in the father's waning days. Jacob easily found a way to snare the transfer of the birthright from Esau. The ancient "good ol' boy" came in from hunting one afternoon and, in a famished panic, asked his younger brother to fix him some food. Jacob shrewdly proposed to do so if Esau would cede his firstborn right in exchange. True to his personal hierarchy of values, Esau reasoned, "Of what use is something as intangible as that, if one is starving to death? Of course, you can have the birthright," and without delay Jacob provided "a mess of pottage," thereby occasioning a crucial spiritual reality to change hands.
Some time later, Isaac realized his days were numbered and asked Esau to go hunt for wild game, then return, and, over a sacred meal, Isaac planned to confer on Esau the powerful patriarchal blessing. Rebecca overheard this exchange and quickly saw an opportunity to secure this treasure for Jacob rather than Esau. She cleverly orchestrated a process of deception by which blind and feeble old Isaac was shamelessly deceived. Rebecca dressed Jacob in animal skin to resemble the hairy older son, and she prepared the kind of meal Esau would have put together. Thus, Rebecca and Jacob were able to effect this exploitation of both Isaac and Esau. While faintly suspicious that something was wrong, the pathetic old blind man placed his hands on Jacob's head and said the sacred words of blessing. When Esau arrived later and the father and son realized what had taken place, Isaac was devastated and Esau was filled with fury at this utterly devious power play.
I want to pause for a moment and recall how, as a child, I used to puzzle over this particular story. I wondered, "Why did not Isaac take back the blessing that he had said over Jacob, once the deception was discovered, and then proceed to give Esau what was technically his by right?" What I later learned was that the ancient Hebrews had a high regard for the potency of the spoken word. They regarded the sounds that proceeded from a person's mouth to be exactly like arrows shot from a bow or rocks propelled from a sling. In their thinking, words were deeds and, once something was said, it assumed a life of its own and moved into the situation in which it was spoken with a power of its own. The important thing was that once a word was pronounced, it could not be retrieved. Isaac was incapable of recalling that spoken blessing once it had been said. There is a profound truth, of course, to this concrete understanding of human speech. Centuries later someone composed the following poem:
Boys flying kites, pull in their white-winged birds,
But this you cannot do, when you are flying words.
Thoughts, unexpressed, may some day fall back dead,
But God himself can't kill them, once they're said!
I find this to be a very sobering realization. I imagine that most of you can relate to the destructive power of words spoken, for example, in cruel gossip aimed at damaging or obliterating another's reputation.
Esau knew that his opportunity for the blessing had been missed once and for all, and he angrily resolved to kill Jacob with his own bare hands as soon as their violated old father died. Rebecca heard of his intentions and knew that they were not an idle threat. There were many things this outdoorsman could not do, but as a hunter, he was more than capable of putting these words into action. Shrewd and resourceful as always, Rebecca took Jacob aside and told him that he had no choice but to flee for his life. Rebecca and Jacob had violated one of the most revered traditions of their society and radicals of every era have experienced the explosive reactions that always come from doing things differently from "the way we've always done things." Rebecca told Jacob that her brother, Laban, lived hundreds of miles to the east of Palestine in the section of Mesopotamia from which all the Abrahamic clan had migrated decades before. She said emphatically, "You must go there right away. Laban will give you sanctuary once you identify yourself as my son. There is no time to waste. Be gone this very hour!"
Such a proposal made all kinds of practical sense, but Jacob was initially overwhelmed by such a prospect. Remember, Esau was the outdoorsman and the hunter and Jacob was a gentle homebody. He had lived close to his mother, largely within the tents of the clan. He was the intellectual and the mystic of the family, and had never so much as spent a night very far from the protective company of his kindred. He did not have the first clue how to survive in the wild and, to make matters worse, people in that day and age traveled in groups, never alone. Only criminal outcasts ever ventured out by themselves, and there were few markers in those ancient times that pointed to the far-off land of Mesopotamia. Therefore, as realistic as Rebecca's proposal sounded, it must have evoked unmitigated terror throughout Jacob's whole being. Nevertheless, he was wily enough to realize that "some odds are better than no odds at all." In fear and trembling, he gathered together what few things he could manage to carry and made a hasty escape before the characteristically obtuse Esau realized what had happened.
No change of circumstances could have been more absolute or drastic for Jacob. He had awakened that morning in the same context in which he had lived all his life but, before the sun went down that same day, he found himself all alone on an unfamiliar rocky hilltop outside the ancient city of Luz. Jacob was in desperate straits indeed, feeling as though the bottom had fallen out of his life. One does not need a lot of imagination to contemplate what must have been flooding through the consciousness of this frightened fugitive. I am sure he was filled with all kinds of terror. He may have wondered, "Will some wild animal sniff me out in the night, pounce on me, and devour me? Will someone see me alone, assume I am a dangerous criminal, and kill me in what they think is self-defense? How on earth am I going to find my way to Uncle Laban and, even if I get to him, will he believe who I am and offer me hospitality?"
We all know that one of the ways we can severely traumatize ourselves is to play the game "What if?" Who would not be unsettled in thinking, "What if I have a heart attack or develop cancer? What if my spouse dies or the stock market crashes?" We can drive ourselves to the brink of despair by imagining the terrible things that might happen to us, and Jacob was probably overwhelmed by all kinds of fears.
At the same time, he may have also found himself seething with anger at the whole tradition of the firstborn being the recipient of most of the power and privileges. He may have raged against the idea that native gifts did not count for anything. He could have been angry with his mother also, for having treasured the old stories about Abraham. Remember, Isaac had been through a frightening experience when he was twelve years old and his father had taken him up on a mountain and almost killed him before an angel stopped Abraham. One can understand how, after that trauma, Isaac never had much interest in the realm of religion. He made it a point to keep a discreet distance from this mysterious Being called God. The Scripture reports that he only prayed one time in his life. Thus, Isaac attached little value to the tradition of his father. It was Rebecca who deemed all this as important, and Jacob could easily have resented her for this and the crisis that resulted from it. What is obvious is that Jacob was traumatized by what he feared and felt at that moment on the hilltop outside of Luz.
I have to believe that he had enough sense of fairness in the depths of his being that he was experiencing guilt as well, for what he had done to both Esau and his father. While by no means the only truth, the famous Golden Rule does represent a basic form of relational maturity. As we measure how we would like other people to treat us, we get a clear sense of how we ought to treat other people. Lying there in the dark, I imagine Jacob had to come to terms with the fact that if Esau had done to him what he had done to Esau, he would have been enraged. Likewise, if any of his sons were to deceive him when he became old and weak, in the way that he had deceived his father, he would be just as infuriated. Let's face it; even a thief thinks stealing is wrong when he is being robbed!
It is hard to imagine a tougher situation than the one in which Jacob found himself at this particular moment. He was probably ashamed and regretful about the past, uneasy about the present, and fearful and apprehensive about the future. Yet, somehow, with nothing but a rock for his pillow, he managed finally to go to sleep, only to have something absolutely incredible happen. Jacob had a great dream in which he saw a ladder rooted in heaven above descending down to that lonely spot where he laid. Angels were moving up and down this ladder, and the Lord God himself appeared at the top of the ladder and said, "I am the God of Abraham and of Isaac." At that point, the Holy One called Jacob by name and said, "The land where you are sleeping is someday going to be given to your descendants. I am going to protect you on this journey you are taking today and I will eventually bring you back." In other words, Jacob was told that God was going to be with him and for him, in spite of everything he had done. Here is a genuine miracle. In a place where he least expected it and at a time when he least deserved it, grace happened to Jacob in a most amazing way.
A lady I once knew by the name of Gert Behanna had grown up with a father who was absolutely hostile toward all religion. He was very successful and had made a lot of money, but he refused to have anything to do with the spiritual realm of existence. As a result, Gert had no religious training whatsoever while she was a growing up, and she was given no moral compass by which to guide her behavior. Her adult experiences went from bad to worse. She married three times, only to have each marriage end up in divorce. She had two sons, whom she had no idea how to handle, and who wound up causing her all sorts of problems. In the midst of all this, she became increasingly dependent upon alcohol until, finally, her life became so unworkable that she said, "I cannot stand it any longer!" One night she took a massive overdose of sleeping pills, as a way to end her terrible agony and escape into what she thought would be final oblivion.
Imagine her dismay when, eight hours later, she woke up in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital and had to face the fact that that she was such an inept failure that she could not even succeed in ending her life. Her despair became greater than ever. Not long after this rude awakening, some friends came to visit her and, in the simplest of ways, one of them said, "Gert, have you ever considered asking God into your life to help you with all that you are up against?" Gert replied angrily, "I don't even believe that there is a God! I am sick unto death of all this religious talk. It is just a crutch. You make God sound like some kind of bellhop who will come and carry your bags for you." Her friend replied nondefensively, "You know, a crutch is a wonderful help when you are crippled, and so is a bellhop when you have more baggage than you can carry."
The conversation ended there and her friends eventually went on their way. However, as Gert was lying there alone in the darkness, she looked up at the ceiling and stammered out, "God, I don't even know whether you exist. I have never had anything to do with you, but if you do exist and if you can help me, please, please come. I am absolutely at the end of my rope."
Excerpted from GOD THE INGENIOUS ALCHEMIST by John R. Claypool. Copyright © 2005 John R. Claypool. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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